On April eighth, Mariners top pitching prospect Danny Hultzen allowed five earned runs in his first Double-A start. Since then, the University of Virginia product has taken the hill a dozen times for the Jackson Generals allowing only five additional earned runs. This stretch of consecutive dominant outings has Mariners fans and prospect fans alike wondering how long it will take for Hultzen to be called up to the show. His success has left me wondering if as a child, Danny Hultzen was the type to constantly ask his parents “are we there yet?” on long road trips. If so, then the left-hander is probably busy texting “Is it time yet?” to Mariners higher-ups as his combination of stuff and performance is Seattle ready.
However, for as ready as Hultzen is to contribute at the big league level, his stuff was down from my first look at him on a Friday night against Georgia Tech in 2011 while playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In that game, Hultzen worked full innings in the mid-90′s mixing in a mid-80′s slider and low-to-mid 80′s changeup with great success. In Chattanooga, I had the opportunity to watch a more toned down, workmanlike Hultzen who presented as a much different pitcher now than he did just a year ago. Gone were the mid-90′s readings on the radar gun and slider. Present was a low-90′s fastball and upper 70′s curveball which allowed Hultzen to pitch at three distinct speeds.
Additionally, the deep crouch he pitched from in college was a bit more conventional this time around. Changes to Hultzen’s throwing motion included a lower 3/4 arm slot, as well as a tendency to throw even more across his body than he did previously. On the whole, this caused his pitches to be a bit flatter and made it difficult at times to finish pitches. This may be responsible for his command not being quite as sharp as I remembered and for a number of pitches sitting up-and-out to right-handed hitters. Even so, Hultzen navigated in-and-out of tight spots with the ease of a veteran many years his senior and presented as in complete control of the game on a day when his best stuff was not present.
At 90-92 MPH, touching 93, Hultzen’s fastball plays higher in game action as he’s still the best pitcher I’ve seen at hiding the baseball prior to the pitch. Instead of batters picking up the ball “in the window” just before the typical pitcher releases the ball, Hultzen’s pitches appear as if they are being shot out of his shoulder from behind home plate. This gives opposing hitters fits and alters their timing mechanism allowing 92 MPH to appear as if it’s 95 out of the hand. When down in the zone, Hultzen’s fastball still featured the same heavy sinking action which should produce ground balls by the bushel. However, he had trouble finding a consistent release point causing balls to sail up-and-out whenever he did not finish out front. In retrospect, his being a bit “wild in the zone” did help adjust eye levels and keep hitters off-balance. And on a day where he definitely could have been more sharp, his fastball still profiled as above average.
Hultzen’s curveball/slider was a 77-79 MPH offering with more downer action than his previous breaking ball. Where his mid-80′s slider cut across the plate, this hybrid pitch featured more downward action and less velocity. Labeling it a slurve can have negative connotations and this was a good pitch. The fact Hultzen’s breaking ball is still his third best pitch has not changed. What has changed is that a third offering which does not closely mirror his changeup like his slider did before will allow for even more pitchability and deception. Additionally, tweaking or swapping out a pitch altogether is very difficult to do and Hultzen accomplished it with ease. It’s a feat worth mentioning and speaks highly of his ability to make adjustments.
Maybe his best pitch, Hultzen’s changeup was a bit softer than last season at 81 MPH instead of the 82-85 MPH pitch witnessed pre-draft in 2011. However, this is of little concern because the velocity differential is strong at about 10 MPH. What is of slight concern is that his lower arm slot caused the pitch to float a bit too much for my liking at times leading to a loss a in sharp, late bite. The pitch flashed plus, but wasn’t the consistent plus offering seen last season.
For whatever reason, the baseball gods have looked upon me kindly in 2012 as I’ve now had the opportunity to scout picks two-through-four from the 2011 draft and may run into Gerrit Cole on a trip to upstate New York in a couple of weeks. In retrospect, I would be hard pressed to pass on Dylan Bundy at number one if the 2011 draft were held today. However, after speaking to contacts and seeing a few of the top college arms in person, the trio of Cole, Hultzen and Trevor Bauer are still pretty interchangeable at this point. And while Hultzen did not present with the electric stuff seen prior to the draft and in the Arizona Fall League, he still has a floor of an excellent third starter and quality start machine with the potential of a strong number two.